Cubans left homeless by Irma try to keep faith in the revolution
‘Surely this should be one of the first buildings you evacuate. But nobody came' Lixa Peñalver, Havana resident
Havana was in midnight darkness and the flood waters were neck high when Yanelis Rodríguez finally gave up hope that help was on its way.
As waves crashed over the Malecón seawall 200 metres away, Rodríguez and her two young children waded through Hurricane Irma’s storm surge to safety. “The winds started at four in the afternoon. We’d waited so long because we just assumed the government would come and help us,” she said.
It had been a harrowing night: in the early hours an iron girder had crashed on to the roof above them. Yanelis ran into the street before changing her mind and going back inside – it was too dangerous to seek refuge elsewhere.
Irma hit Cuba as a category 5 hurricane on Saturday, causing catastrophic destruction in a country that prides itself on disaster preparedness. At least 10 people died – Cuba’s worse hurricane death toll since Hurricane Dennis killed 16 in 2005. Seven deaths were in Havana, whose decaying buildings were no match for the storm. As uprooted trees were hauled away, many in the capital were asking whether authorities were ready for another storm.
Two brothers, Roydis and Walfrido Valdés, died in their Havana flat when a block of concrete fell from four storeys above. More than a dozen people remain in the 100-year-old building. Cracks between bricks are many inches wide. Like many of Havana’s once-elegant buildings, it has received little maintenance in years. “The government knows this building is liable to collapse,” said a neighbour, Lixa Peñalver, 47, adding that an elderly man fell to his death years ago when another part of the building caved in. “If you know that there’s a big risk, surely this should be one of the first buildings you evacuate. But nobody came.”
María Estela Pedroso said she had been trying to convince officials to relocate her for more than a decade. “Nobody should be living where we are living,” she shouted.
Luís Dilu Galiente is president of the building’s Committee for the Defence of the Revolution – a neighbourhood body that provides basic social services and also watches out for counter-revolutionary activities. He admitted the block had not been evacuated but pointed out that many locals had taken in people seeking shelter – part of Cuba’s emergency planning. A family of six has been staying in Galiente’s two-bedroom flat since before Irma struck. “The state didn’t send buses to evacuate the building like they have on other occasions. But anybody can find refuge if they want it – at least with their neighbours,” he said.
Cuban media reported that more than a million were evacuated across the island. Television ran regular updates advising people to take precautions before the hurricane, though forecasts did not place Havana in its path.
Three-quarters of the workforce is employed by the state, so in times of crisis the government can marshal its human and material resources. The week before the storm, the pharmaceutical industry was instructed to put other medicines on hold so as to manufacture and distribute hydration salts.
Donald Trump renewed the US embargo on Cuba for another year hours before Irma made landfall. The embargo makes matters worse for the housing stock, with Cuba forced to pay over the odds for building materials as it cannot buy from multinationals that trade with the US so is forced to source items from further afield. With dozens of hotels smashed, millions still without power and thousands of hectares of sugar cane destroyed, financing the reconstruction will be a challenge: the embargo also prevents Cuba from receiving funding from the IMF, the World Bank and other regional lending institutions.
The Belén convent and care home in Old Havana has been transformed into a shelter. Yorka Gutiérrez Pérez came with her neighbours when the front of their building collapsed. She hopes to stay in the shelter until she is given a new house, but it’s likely she’ll have a wait. “I’ve got faith in this government,” she said. “Until now, at least, the revolution has never abandoned us.”
10 The number of people killed in Cuba, its highest death toll from a hurricane since 16 people were killed by Hurricane Dennis in 2005
A man wades across a flooded street after Irma’s storm surge inundated parts of Havana Photograph: Yamil Lageyamil Lage/Getty